grief and the value of community

This post is the fifth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

neighbours gatherIt’s been several months since Quynh’s father Hai passed away, and the one hundred days—the “tốt khốc” (“end of tears”), marking a resumption of “normal” life after a loved one’s passing—have elapsed long since. Being surrounded by family has helped Quynh’s mother Lam cope with the tragic loss greatly. Quynh commented on her mother’s evident sense of joy at the large turnout for the 100th-day commemoration—sixty people or more arrived to pay their respects and to be with the family, if I recall correctly.

Vietnamese people are tightly interconnected with those around them. When I first came to Vietnam, I often mused about how little “personal space” I enjoyed, chalking it up to a case of high population density. Vietnam’s a small country, right? Long but thin. It must be hard to fit 85 million+ people in here. But more than that, the Vietnamese people aren’t afraid to be close as a community. Since returning from my first trip, I began to note how woefully separate, isolated I felt in Canada—as if every trip back home was like shutting myself into a cell. In Vietnam, there are no such barriers isolating people—or at the very least, they’re much less apparent than in the “developed” West. Sure, it means that people can pop in unannounced for a visit at all hours of the day, but hey, is ten minutes’ worth of tea and chatter so much to ask? Or are those ten minutes really better spent holed up watching TV? (Full disclosure: I tend to hole myself up with my laptop, which isn’t much better. And yes, I reproach myself for it.)
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say a little prayer

This post is the fourth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

family shrineOn these, the coldest winter mornings when the roads are covered in snow and ice, I roll groggily out of my bed to get ready for work. Shower, brush teeth, shave. Get dressed in long johns, spiffy tailored pants and shirt from Da Nang. Lumber downstairs and feed the cat. Then pull a little piece of black plastic out of my pocket and pin it above my breast pocket, and walk quietly into the den, where the shrine awaits. Gaze with love at the portrait that stands there, and take three sticks of incense, applying a flame until they smoulder. Then holding them before me, I utter a quiet prayer, and bow three times, repeating the Greatest Name of God. Planting the sticks in the handmade ceramic pot in the centre of this small, humble shrine, I bow once more and turn away to start my day.

I used to burn incense, but only because it seemed cool and exotic. It didn’t occur to me that I could ever use it to pray.

Well, not pray. I can’t really use a stick of incense to pray, or can I? Maybe worship is a better word. I’m still not sure where that line is, or if there even is a line. I know how Baha’is pray, and I know the way we were taught to pray in Catholic schools. I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and I’m doing my darndest to memorize the Tablet of Ahmad. I even know what Muslim prayers look and sound like. But I still wonder whenever I see people offering incense at shrines, temples and pagodas: What exactly are you thinking? Not in a “wondering about your sanity” way, of course, but genuinely wondering what goes through the minds of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans and Japanese when they offer incense. How exactly do you pray?
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the life of a vietnamese son-in-law

This post is the third in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

plot maintenanceApart from the family memorial gatherings and the weekly devotional gatherings for Quynh’s father Hai, my time in Vietnam was rather quiet and uneventful. It rained heavily for a good part of my stay, which left me stuck inside most of the time. In my free time I did some tele-work for my employer in Ottawa, using a remote access provider to debug CSS and code up ASP.NET controls from the comfort of my chair in Da Nang. Yes, that was my free time. Whenever we weren’t visiting Hai’s resting place south of Da Nang—replacing flowers, planting rows of incense, refilling oil lamps—I mainly puttered around the house, taking care of chores. As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to be a good son-in-law (in Vietnamese, con rể), hoping to learn the ropes, as it were, of Vietnamese family life. It turned out that my main task was, well, to stay in the house and wait for things to happen.

I eventually got into a routine that involved taking care of a few daily chores: preparing rice for lunch, taking out garbage, and fetching cola and other small items from nearby shops. Another big part of that routine was to take care of the family shrine—meaning, offer rice and keep the incense burning at all times. At every mealtime, we would take some of our rice (or noodles, or whatever) and place it in a little bowl on the shrine. Quynh explained to me that while she and her mother, being Baha’is, didn’t necessarily believe that her father’s spirit would “consume” the food—or that his spirit would even need such sustenance—the act of offering food to the deceased was mainly for the family, to help them grieve. Offering incense, she said, carried the same significance.
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taking care of the shrine

This post is the second in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

The gesture of offering incense is omnipresent throughout Asia, it seems. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India—anyone who’s Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Shinto—even some types of Christian—knows what it means to offer incense. “In North America, not so much,” as I would tell everyone in Da Nang. In the West, most people treat incense as a way to make your house smell good, not as an object of religious practice.

taking care of the shrineI spent my time during my last trip to Vietnam trying to discern how to be a good son-in-law. Eventually, I figured out a few things that seemed to be key: preparing rice at lunch, taking out the garbage, fetching things from nearby shops, and regularly offering incense at the family shrine. If you remember my post about Vietnamese funeral customs, you’ll recall that when someone dies in Vietnam, a shrine is erected as a memorial, and that a central element of that shrine is a pot of sand used to plant sticks of incense as offerings, generally placed in front of a photo of the deceased. This shrine is an active centre of worship for (at least) the 100 days following their passing. “Worship?” I hear you ask. Yes, worship, or at least that’s how they refer to it—the act of paying one’s respects by offering incense. Vietnamese, even Baha’is, tend to draw a line between this act of “worship” and the personal prayers one might say before bed, or in times of trouble, and so on. Paying one’s respects at the family shrine is one of the most fundamental acts of Vietnamese spiritual life, and this applies irrespective of “membership” in one religious community or another; it is a tradition that helps to define what it means to be Vietnamese, and acts as a base for the family and society. Without understanding it, you cannot understand Vietnam.
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travelling between life and death

This post is the first in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

Arriving in Da Nang on September 6th, i was just about two weeks too late to say goodbye to my father-in-law. I had only a vague idea of what had happened, pieced together from brief phone calls as the nightmare unfolded. Upon arriving, the family had me offer incense at his shrine—a traditional gesture that would become very familiar to me in the following six weeks. This gesture is performed at every funeral in Vietnam—and during the six weeks I was there following Ba’s passing, no fewer than three close friends and family members also passed away. You bet I got a lot of practice. (More about offering incense later—lots more, I promise.)

Vietnamese funeral customs are based on a mix of Buddhism and indigenous spirit beliefs that date back several millennia. An extensive set of rites and customs govern every aspect of death, before and after it takes place, even extending years into the future. The process of grieving itself involves not only whole families, but whole communities, with entire neighbourhoods gathering to help mourn a loss.
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death and life in vietnam

dawn reflections in da nangmy recent trip to Vietnam to visit family after my father-in-law’s passing afforded me a lot of time to think. Even while I was still there, I knew I wanted to share with the world reflections on the experience of losing a loved one across cultures, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective. as it turns out, I’ve actually got a lot of notes, so much so that it’d probably take way more effort than I can give at the moment to put it all into one big essay-type format. So I figure I’ll split it into a few posts, covering a few different—but very related—topics. These may change, but I figured people might like to know what I’m planning.

As noted, I expect these posts will come out every 3–4 days, as I have time to work on each of them (that said, the dates noted here are approximate).

Edit: All posts are now up (finally)!